Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    How do architects fail?

    Mitch McEwen
    Feb 20, '14 2:08 AM EST

    What is it about failure that is so seductive in art and such anathema in architecture?  

    Perhaps there is something about the relationship between client and architect that makes failure so…. taboo, so unthinkable, and un-seductive.

    For the past few months I have been part of an interdisciplinary group organized by curators Kerry Downey and Natasha Marie Llorens to investigate ideas or methods of failure, in preparation for a group exhibition in Manhattan this summer.  Actually, it's possible that the group exhibition is more of a pretense to consolidate this interdisciplinary group around failure, which is obviously something people are wary of associating with too closely.  The exhibition is tentatively titled "Failure to Levitate."

    That title references a work by the artist Bruce Nauman, documented in the above photo titled "Failing to Levitate in My Studio (1966)."  The photo manages to present the sequence of falling to the floor with just two time-lapse frames.  The succinct elegance of this image and its relationship to the title reify the possibility of an image to present a subject's internal reality.  Even as the title denotes failing at an impossible act, and the photo shows the artist on the floor, the work affirms the potential of the artist's imagination.  The artist is still a genius and assured in his societal role as such, even when failing.  

    Do we have comparable moments or fixations in architecture?  Scanning the online world of architectural failure, one finds a few noteworthy collections.  Most lists of architectural failures, such as this 50 worst, are actually list of structural failures.  These structural failures may be engineering flaws, but most develop from construction oversights.  Failed Architecture chronicles failure more specifically within the domain of architecture, and/but often addresses urbanism and the politics of site.  

    Perhaps a concern for failure is difficult to locate in architecture because it's so ubiquitous.  I am thinking not of the difficulties of a career, but the creative and iterative process of design.  If John Baldessari, artist of "I will not make any more boring art" fame, exemplifies the conceptual art concern with failure, he also exemplifies the think-tank model of art pedagogy that might be closest to design-oriented architecture schools.  According to art sociologist Sarah Thornton, Baldessari's motto is that "Art comes out of failure," and he tells students, "You have to try things out.  You can't sit around, terrified of being incorrect..."  If failure is inseparable from iteration -- specifically, an iteration that denies the preciousness of the iterated object-- then failure sounds a lot like drafting.


    • EvanH

      This reminds me of another article I recently read in the Nation magazine "Permission to Fail".

      Feb 25, 14 7:18 am  · 

      Thank you, EvanH, I hadn't seen this. 

      Mar 24, 14 8:41 pm  · 

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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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